****Gretchen

By Shannon Kirk – The crime—the first one that is—is kidnapping. Shannon Kirk’s gripping new psychological thriller Gretchen begins with a mother determined to prevent her daughter’s father from kidnapping her. Susan explains to Lucy that he’s from a country where women have no rights and live practically like slaves, and he will do anything—send anyone—to get her back. They’ve been on the run since Lucy was a toddler, never really settling down, and now they are fleeing Indiana, their tenth state.

What will a mother do to protect her child? Live on the fringes of society and be prepared to pack up and leave at any moment. Never engage with anyone or reveal anything about themselves. Never even make eye contact. Susan and Lucy have fake identities, she pays cash for everything, and accesses a hidden stash when they run short.

Now that she’s fifteen, Lucy is tired of the secrets, tired of the hiding, tired of not having friends, exhausted by Susan’s paranoia. Homeschooled until recently, she barely has acquaintances, since she can’t really share personal information with anyone she meets in school. As the book opens, a chance encounter in a park with a man who acts as if he recognizes her forces them to pick up sticks and flee once again.

Susan finds them a rental home in the small New Hampshire town of Milberg. Although the landlord gives off a creepy vibe, Lucy wants to stay, to settle. He lives up the hill in a big brick house and has a daughter her age, Gretchen. Though the girl seems a bit odd, too, maybe she can be a friend. Kirk’s depiction of Lucy, in the chapters she narrates, is a persuasive picture of adolescent psychology. She’s hoping for a friend despite the negative signals, severe and over-confident in her judgments of Susan, silently second-guessing all her own actions.

Kirk expertly handles the ramp-up of tension between Lucy and Gretchen, and it’s a relief when Lucy gets a summer job at the local gourmet grocery store—a rare bit of mom-authorized independence. She won’t go inside Gretchen’s house again, but out-of-doors. Lucy paints while Gretchen works puzzles.

At work one day, Lucy encounters the man who recognized her back in Indiana. Apparently, in an awkward coincidence, he and his son live in Milberg. He recognizes her again. And contrary to every paranoid impulse Susan has drilled into her, Lucy doesn’t tell, even though it could turn out to be the riskiest decision possible. Of  course she’s not the only one with secrets. Susan has a big one, and the landlord, well . . .

Kirk’s flair for description brings his and his daughter’s bizarre lives (and dwelling) vividly to life. They are a stark contrast to the middle-class normality of the Milberg residents Lucy observes from behind her cash register, a normality she’s struggling to become part of. Quite a compelling read!

Puzzle photo: Sephelonor for Pixabay

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Deathtrap

A good many regular theater goers at some point will have seen Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s supremely popular comedy thriller, which premiered on Broadway in 1978, ran for almost 1800 performances, and was nominated for four Tony awards, including best play. Princeton Summer Theater’s production, directed by Annika Bennett, premiered July 4 (perfect choice for making a bang) and will be on stage at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater Thursdays through Sundays until July 21.

It’s been so long since I last saw Deathtrap, I’d forgotten the story’s twists and turns and appreciated anew its delicious surprises. This isn’t a play where you want to reveal overmuch about plot except to say Sidney Bruhl (played by C. Luke Soucy) is a formerly successful playwright specializing in murder mysteries. His wife Myra (Kathryn Anne Marie) is increasingly worried about the lack of money coming in and the diminishing prospects for more.

When a cleverly conceived play titled “Deathtrap” arrives unexpectedly from one of Bruhl’s former students, Clifford Anderson, it’s almost too tempting. It would be Bruhl’s perfect comeback vehicle, if only he’d written it! Levin’s dialog is full of jibes at the theater world and its vicissitudes, such as when Myra asks Bruhl “Is [Anderson’s play] really that good?” and he says, “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

“Deathtrap’s” author Anderson appears (Dylan Blau Edelstein), a babe who’s wandered into some rather devious woods, as does a famous Dutch psychic (Abby Melick) living nearby, and Bruhl’s attorney (Justin Ramos). The Deathtrap you’re watching, just like Anderson’s “Deathtrap,” conforms to Bruhl’s favorite formula: two acts and a cast of five. All are fine in their parts, with special mention of Marie and Melick.

The play takes to heart Chekhov’s famous admonition that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Guns, maces, swords, a crossbow, knives—Bruhl’s study décor is a catalog of mayhem, with even a pair of trick handcuffs devised by Houdini. The set design is particularly strong, though the costumes were puzzling. (What era?)

When viewing a play forty years on, it’s fair to ask, does it hold up? In this case, the answer is a definite yes. Consider Deathtrap a solid choice for your summer entertainment!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

New In Print

Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.

About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.

Order here from Amazon.

****Below the Fold

Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.

Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.

Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.

The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list is Dora Gayle.

Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder? Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed lower Manhattan.

Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”

Image by Michal Kryński from Pixabay

*****Conviction

By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller, Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the sinking of the Dana, a private yacht moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.

Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown a bag of kittens in it.”

Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his own roller bag beside him.

Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.

And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler tried to get her killed.

Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of being haunted.

Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!

You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one, with Mina’s intriguing tale.

For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.

Photo: Jan Alexander from Pixabay.

****The Better Sister

wedding rings, rose

By Alafair Burke – Which is the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.

A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable, persistent threat lurking in the background.

When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.

The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

Photo: Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

From Author’s Page to Your Ear

earphones

The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products. Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.

1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.

2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.

2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.

3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested  several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.

Two Promising Thrillers

When they’re good, thrillers set in interesting foreign places are like a trip without the airport hassles. Both of these seemed like promising journeys, and both had good points. If the premise intrigues you, go for it.

***Secrets of the Dead

By Murray Bailey – This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the adventures of Egypt archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject.

Secrets of the Dead begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.

Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. A stranger claiming special knowledge asks MacLure to meet him in Cairo, and MacLure follows a rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the mysterious man. When he enters the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on his heels are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a jaywalking ticket in Cairo.

Charlie Rebb is sent to Egypt to work with Cairo police, as a body has been found there with similar markings as those under the church. Clearly the two stories are becoming intertwined. Occasional sections are from the point of view of the killer and his Master, unnecessary in my opinion, and not very realistic.

Bailey intersperses Rebb’s and MacLure’s narratives with the story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of everlasting life.

Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly. His authentic passion for the country’s long and complicated ancient history shines through. It’s a strong contender for your summer beach bag, the kind of book you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey doesn’t give you much help. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid are a step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally welcome.

***Pretense

By John Di Frances This is the first book of a trilogy about an international hunt for a trio of assassins targeting European politicians. As a crime thriller, the tradecraft of the assassins is detailed and persuasive, and the police procedural elements also are good. It’s billed as a book that demonstrates disenchantment with the European Unionthe assassination targets are big EU supporters – but it doesn’t really work as a political thriller, because there’s very little politics in it. The assassins could just as well be murdering top chefs or social media gurus.

The assassins are an Irish couple, handsome and strikingly beautiful, wealthy, elegant, and socially adept (in a too-good-to-be-true way) and a more rough-around-the-edges German man, who is an expert sniper. The couple’s first target is Slovakia’s prime minister, killed by a car bomb outside a Bratislava restaurant. The German accomplishes the second murder, that of the Polish prime minister. It’s technically difficult, shooting from a distance of 640 meters into a packed stadium of excitable soccer fans.

The three escape to Berlin, several steps ahead of the multiple security services now on their trail. The cat-and-mouse game is well done and may carry you through some of the clunky writing. Technical information dumps show Di Frances did his homework. Yet the weight or length of a rifle is immaterial, of itself. Such information needs to be brought into the story. Has the sniper had experience with a rifle of that type, is its length an advantage or does it make it hard to conceal? Worst was a bullet-point list of 16 variables affecting the soccer stadium shot. Dude, this is fiction!

The plot pulls you forward nevertheless, and Di Frances has a great twist in store. Unfortunately, when you reach the end of Pretense, you’re not at the end of the story. To really understand what’s been going on, you’ll have to read book two and very probably book three. Not sure I’m ready for that. Link to Amazon.

Photo: Ron Porter from Pixabay.

****The Horseman’s Song

By Ben Pastor – This book is one of Ben Pastor’s six detective novels featuring German intelligence officer Martin Bora and a prequel to novels covering Bora’s activities during the Second World War.

As the book opens, it’s summer 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Two tiny encampments located high in the rocky sierras of Aragon overlook a valley, a cane-lined brook, and the small town of Teruel. Bora heads one of these camps, comprising about seven Nationalists; the other, near enough for occasional sniper-fire, is similarly sized and led by American volunteer Philip Walton. Walton is a World War I veteran, a couple of decades older than Bora, and has joined the Republican side less because of conviction and more because he can’t think of anything better to do.

The men in both camps are a ragtag bunch and more prone to follow their own inclinations than any official orders. Neither unit is interested in attacking the other, preferring to save their energies for a big battle rumored to be coming soon. The proximity of these two encampments is illustrated by the fact that both Bora and Walton both visit the same prostitute high on the mountaintop. For Bora, the encounters with this young woman are life-changing; for Walton, they’re a painful reminder he’s aging. Yet they inspire destructive sexual jealousy.

Bora finds the body of a stranger shot in the head on the road below his encampment and wonders how this stranger ended up there. Walton also knows about the corpse, plus he knows who the man is: his friend Federico García Lorca (pictured), the revered poet and playwright, homosexual, and staunch Republican. Walton and his men bury García Lorca’s partway up the mountain; Bora’s scouts find the grave, remove the body, and bury it elsewhere. The official story—in the novel as well as in real life—is that García Lorca was murdered in 1936 outside Granada. The authorities on both sides would prefer that Bora and Walton let the official story stand unquestioned.

Separately, they conduct a somewhat clandestine investigation of the events of the fatal night and the motives of various people who might have been involved. It’s slow going, because Walton and Bora are mostly otherwise engaged. The times themselves dampen progress further. If Bora wants to send a message to Teruel, someone has to get on a donkey and take it. A response won’t arrive for hours. If Walton wants to investigate an event in the village of Castellar, he must climb the mountain to do so. The overall impression is of a hostile environment that’s dusty and hot, hot, hot. Author Pastor does an admirable job evoking the landscape, the conditions, and the way things got done (or not) eight decades ago.

With their murder investigations limping along, there is ample opportunity for exploring the characters of both Walton and Bora, as well as several of their underlings. Pastor’s writing style is dense and full of psychological insight. Her short scenes feel almost like an hour-by-hour bulletin on camp activities. And, of course, writing about García Lorca gives the opportunity for pithy epigrams from his wonderful poems.

Ben Pastor is the pseudonym for Maria Verbena Volpi. Born in Rome, she holds dual citizenship in Italy and the United States. Though Martin Bora is fictional, he was inspired by Claus von Stauffenberg, best known for his leading role in the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.